Sport | Opinion

Māori and Pasifika names have a long history of being butchered by sports commentators: academics

Photo: File


  • 45 per cent of NRL players have Pasifika heritage
  • 44 NRL players were born in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa or Tonga.
  • Samoa has produced 13 All Blacks who have played a total of 396 matches.

Dr Dion Enari is a senior lecturer in sport leadership and management at Auckland University of Technology. He has a PhD in Fa’a Samoa and holds the Ali’i Tulafale title Lefaoali’i from Lepa, Samoa. Dr Phillip Borell (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Apakura, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) is a senior lecturer (above the bar) in Aotahi: School of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury, a researcher, community advocate, chairman of Canterbury Rugby League, and a co-founder of The Kutt: Functional Fitness.


Pacific and Māori names have a history of being butchered, made fun of, or completely ignored in sport. We have advocated fiercely against this trend. Our involvement includes being indigenous sport researchers and informing mental health policies and programmes.

When Phillip’s youngest son was born, the nurse at the hospital asked if he would be given another name that “people like me” can pronounce. We said yes, and that it was the name he had been given and people could learn to say it correctly. He is named after Phillip’s great-great-grandfather and Phillip’s wife’s father in a hybrid-language name. It’s a bit of a tongue twister for the uninitiated, but it isn’t that hard if you want to get it right. In fact, in his first three years of life, more people have got it right than wrong by the third attempt.

Dr Phillip Borell. Photo; supplied / NZME

This may seem minor to some. However, for so many of us from the Pacific there is great mana in a name. We honour our tūpuna (our ancestors), our heroes, we name our tamariki after places and time and we recreate and rebuild missing links in our own identities so that our children can connect to their whakapapa in ways we could have only dreamed of. These names, and all the meaning within them, should not be trampled by racism disguised as laziness.

One arena where we are constantly reminded of the insignificance of our whakapapa is in sports media. According to our colleague Hamuera Kahi (Ngāti Paoa, Tainui), sports media can act as a site of identity construction. More specifically, he suggests “Media representations are understood to be central in constructing and reproducing race logic”. The idea that media representations can construct an athlete’s identity is a problematic though not inaccurate one.

There is growing critical mass among Polynesian communities, academics and allies, pushing for better inclusion and treatment of Polynesian athletes.

As indigenous people and allies, we must continuously challenge the status quo. Photos / Tom Rowland / NZME

As indigenous people and allies, we must continuously challenge the status quo, or we will continually be passive workers and victims of racism in the sports space. We believe everyone can make this space better for Māori and Pasifika peoples, from taking the time to learn the meanings of Māori and Pacific names, to calling out instances of racism there and then.

Rugby league provides a particular microcosm of the sporting world that relies significantly on the labour of ethnic minorities for its own survival. In Australia, close to 50% of top-tier contracts in the National Rugby League (NRL) competition are held by Polynesian (Māori and Pasifika) athletes.

Since the late 1980s to the early 1990s, professional rugby league contracts in the NRL have provided pathways of social mobility for young Polynesian men who migrate to Australia to play in the world’s premier rugby league competition. As the number of Polynesian men who play professionally in the NRL continues to trend upwards, so, too, does the need for recognition of their identities, whakapapa (genealogy), culture, and heritage.

Photo: File

Commentators, coaches and anyone who engages with Polynesian athletes must respect and try to pronounce Māori and Pasifika names correctly, especially since they make up a large portion of sports including Super Rugby and the NRL.

To not do so is not only cultural ignorance, but a sheer inability for the commentator to do their job correctly and a disregard for one’s dignified existence. We also believe this should extend beyond commentators pronouncing our names correctly.

We need more Māori and Pasifika people to become sport commentators and ensure our languages are more heard in sports media. We acknowledge this movement is occurring with commentators such as Sonny Bill Williams, and the use of Samoan and Māori words by athletes and Polynesian commentators and athletes during prime-time games.

Dr Dion Enari. Photo: supplied / NZME

We have seen efforts from Māori media such as Whakaata Māori to broadcast games fully in te reo Māori. As Polynesian academics we support these initiatives. We believe in the survival of our names, and our cultures within sport. We ask that this be maintained. Ngā mihi and alofa atu.

- NZ Herald